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On Screwing Up

I screwed up recently (not a new or rare occurrence), which lead me to begin running down my mental checklist for how to handle that fact. I realized I’ve never talked about that checklist, and that lead to:

Screwing Up. Next Steps.    

Congratulations, you screwed up. Now what?

This is my general guide for when you screw up on what to do AFTER the screw up. It is born of my professional experiences in the game industry, and personal experiences as an uneducated depressive introvert with confrontation, communication, and time management problems.

In short this comes from a LOT of experience screwing up, but they are all a specific set of screw-ups. Your massive personal failures may vary, and I am not a trained or expert screw up therapist.

Step One: Accept and Acknowledge

These are two separate things, but they are pretty tightly linked. Let’s start with acceptance.

This is specifically a guide for when YOU have screwed up. Not when someone screwed something else up and you catch the blame, or when the universe screws things up and you have to find ways to fix it. The built-in framework here is for when, yeah, you screwed up.

So, you have to accept that.

Acceptance is important for a lot of reasons. First, without your own buy in that you screwed up, you won’t be able to internalize the lesson that screw up contains. Second, acting like you screwed up when you don’t believe you did leads to resentment, among other things.

I’m not here to tell you when you screwed up. Just to say you have to take a long, hard look at major failures, and decide if that’s your own fault. If no, then you need to manage the disaster with an eye towards those factors that DID cause it. But if you screwed up, you need to accept that fact.

Acknowledgement in this case means acknowledging the screw up to those effected. If you fail to do something you said you’d do, or do something that causes problems for others, you need to let them know that YOU know.

This isn’t the place for self-flagellation. The object here is not to garner sympathy, or make yourself feel worse, or make the people who are negatively impacted by your screw up feel worse. It’s just a heads-up that yes, there’s a problem, you caused it, and you know it. Doing this right is tricky. I find efforts to spin why or how you screwed up often get in the way of a clean and useful acknowledgement. Sometimes people need to know why or how, or ask for their own purposes, and that’s fine (if it’s not private, which it can be). But the idea in this acknowledgement isn’t to cover your ass against the consequences (but in some environments you might have to do that, and only you can make that call). The idea here is to bring the other people involved up to your level of information in a polite, professional, and straightforward way.

Step Two: Assess

Okay, this entire article assumes you have screwed up. That’s the premise. This is about finding out how BADLY you screwed up, and what led to the screw up.

Step two is really about baring down on step one as many times as you need to. I personally think accepting and acknowledging at least begin before assessing—admit you screwed up and let people know there’s an issue as soon as you are sure there is one. But right after that, figure out how big a problem you caused. If that calls for accepting that things are worse than you thought (or realizing it’s not that big a deal), and updating anyone else affected, then do that. You need the information to continue this checklist.

Step Three: Mitigate

Nope, the steps aren’t all A words.

Now that you have an idea how big a problem you caused and how you caused it, see if there’s anything reasonable you can do to fix it. What’s reasonable is going to vary, and I can’t really give you hard rules for that. Small problems, or screw ups that it is easier for someone else to fix, or screw ups so massive or personal that anything you try only makes things worse, certainly do happen. You need to see if you can fix it, and if not can you make things better, and if not what can you do to minimizing making things even worse.

Those are of course, all super vague. Lemme give some examples.

If you are working on a project for someone and you know for certain you are going to miss a deadline, you have likely screwed up. If you accept and acknowledge that fact, and assessed the screw up, you should have contacted the person you are to turn it over to and let them know you are going to miss the deadline.

The next question is, now what?

If you are only going to be a little late and the person you are working with can handle that, then mitigating is making sure you hit your new deadline. If you can’t finish the thing at all, you may need to figure out what you can do, and see if that’s helpful. And certainly, you don’t keep hiding or obfuscating that the project is going to be late in the hope you can finish it before you get pinned down. That’s not mitigation.

This may include some hard conversations with people you have let down. Again, straightforward and professional behavior is, in my experience, your best option. But you need to mitigate your screw up with appropriate levels of effort. Don’t cause more problems or become obsessed over the great lengths needed to fix a minor screw up. You can’t let even moderate screw ups take over your life. And if you can’t mitigate the damage you have done, you need to accept AND ACKNOWLEDGE for that too. People may be disappointed or even angry, but they deserve the truth.

Step Four: Learning

Most of my own screw up result from behavior I could have avoided if I had been smart or forethoughtful enough. As a result, after I realize I have screwed something up and done what I can to fix it, I want to examine what I did wrong. Making mistakes is human. Making the same mistake over and over is dumb.

Keep in mind, you often won’t get this right. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson away from an issue, or think your error was unique to a specific circumstance without recognize an underlying behavior that applies in a broader context than you think. Making a mistake about how you made a mistake is frustration, but it’s going to happen. So when you screw up, be sure to examine not only that specific calamity, but anything similar that you’ve screwed up before. In some cases, you’ll find you missed a larger lesson, and that’s your opportunity to finally learn it.

Take Away

None of this can fix the fact you screwed up, and while that’s unfortunate it’s also okay. Everyone screws up from time to time. Hopefully you’ll screw up less often than I do, and you won’t need a mental checklist of how to handle such situations. But because everyone screws up occasionally, I have found that when you tackle you own screw ups with honesty, clear communication, and an effort to fix both the issues you cause and the underlying problems that lead to the screw up, people are generally understanding. Not everyone, of course, but you can never control the behavior of other people. You can only control what you do, and imperfectly at that. Which is what makes handling your own screw ups in an adult and reasonable manner so important.

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Changing topics entirely, I want to let folks who haven;t read the end of one of my articles before know I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.


Quick story, as Gen Con looms.
When I went to interview for a staff job at Wizards of the Coast in 1999 (they flew me from OK to Seattle), I wore a suit. Slacks, dress shirt, tie, jacket, black shoes, the whole 9 yards.
One of the things everyone made VERY clear to me during those interviews was that WotC had a casual atmosphere, and there wasn’t really a dress code at work. I felt overdressed.
OTOH, I a: got the job and b: later heard that another candidate showed up in a fast food uniform. No one ever told me that made a difference… but no one said it didn’t. And one person tad me that the fact I showed up in a suit proved I was taking the job seriously. I have never regretted wearing a suit to that.
When I went to a dinner at GenCon that Sword & Sorcery was having to see who they wanted to work on the EverQuest Tabletop RPG, I wore a polo and jeans. I didn’t feel either overdressed or underdressed, and I got a lot of work from that meeting. I have never regretted wearing a polo to that.
I always recommend looking professional and tidy, and give the impression you take every opportunity professionally and seriously. If you later get told you can dress down, feel free.
But first impression really can count.